Investing in tomorrow

Investing in tomorrow

Middlesbrough College is making heavy investments in teaching STEM, as Peter Jackson discovers talking to Zoe Lewis, principal and chief executive.

Science, technology, engineering and maths are hardly new subjects, so it is unsurprising that Middlesbrough College has a long history of teaching them. It does, after all, have 12,000 students, of whom 4,500 are full-time, and it is the largest engineering training provider in the country.

“Middlesbrough College is the largest college in Teesside so we already offer courses in every single sector area, including science, technology, engineering and maths,’’ says principal and chief executive Zoe Lewis. “We also offer courses at every level from entry level through to post graduate level.’’

However, in recent years, the college has reacted to an increased realisation that there needs to be a new focus on STEM subjects. It has doubled its numbers of engineering trainees in the last four years and now has 1,200 students studying areas from engineering construction to motor vehicles, and has increased its apprenticeships by 70%.

However, it’s not just about numbers. Lewis explains: “Increasingly when we talk to employers they talk about skills shortages in certain areas and, probably more importantly, they talk about how they want different competencies and behaviours from trainees. They’ve been talking to us about trying to add on something new to our training.

“This is something which, as a country, we should challenge ourselves with. For example, as a college, we are very good at offering education and training skills and increasingly at Middlesbrough College we have been focusing not just on those two but on behaviours, ethos and competencies to wrap around the education and skills element.’’

She cites the example of an instrumentation technician, who can not only learn the theory, which they would get from most colleges, but also the practical on an instrumentation training rig.

Again most colleges would provide this, but Middlesbrough College will now put the student in a real working environment which may be in a confined space, or working at height, fully inducted in health and safety, treated like an employee and asked to solve problems. They will also be working shifts.

“Nowhere else in the country does this,’’ says Lewis. She says this is as close to being in the real working environment as they can get outside of the real workplace, which may not be suitable for training.

This is in the college’s new STEM Centre, part of a £20m investment. The £13m centre – which is being built for Middlesbrough College by Esh Build – will specialise in advanced manufacturing, process oil and gas, digital technologies, pharmaceuticals, warehousing and logistics and engineering disciplines.

Companies including Huntsman, Johnson Matthey, Lotte Chemical UK, Caterpillar UK, Tees Components, Sabic, Amec Foster Wheeler, Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, PD Ports, NIFCO and Sembcorp Utilities are backing the centre.

The college has an advisory board of 40 large and small employers which have helped it shape the development, specify the equipment and ethos. They are also sponsoring and donating equipment.

Training courses will be available for those already employed in industry wanting to improve their skills, as well as those with no prior experience but who are keen to land a job in the sector.

The centre will replicate typical industrial environments and will include fully functional chemical and oil processes which will be monitored and operated from a high tech control room. 

A real life lean manufacturing facility is included that incorporates a robotic controlled production line, supported by a warehousing and logistics training operation. “We have visited skills centres up and down the country and I honestly don’t think there’s anything like this,’’ says Lewis. “It’s going to be a fantastic facility for everyone.’’

Some students will be permanently based in the new centre, while others who are based in the main building, will use it occasionally to supplement their study programme.

“Many A Level students thinking of going to university have never been near a plant,’’ says Lewis. “We are working with employers to build up an experience package, so anyone leaving any A-Level centre anywhere across Teesside could come in for a couple of weeks over the summer and get a real feel for the type of industry they are thinking of going into which will really help them inform their choices.

“There are so many possibilities. We are going to start this September but it will take us a good few years to get all of the training options into place.’’

It is anticipated that some 300 apprentices will use the new STEM Centre. There will also be at least 300 more additional full time students and at least 200 adults who come to the college and potentially thousands of employed staff sent by their employers for training.

For example, NEBOSH (National Examination Board in Occupational Health and Safety) courses will be run in the centre.

Lewis detects a growing interest in STEM subjects which has been gathering for the past three to four years. “We’ve been making a huge push on it in terms of providing information to people and parents about earnings potential, careers, skills shortages. Nationally there has also been a greater awareness of how the country has had a lack of STEM graduates and trainees.

We have doubled our engineering numbers, our science and maths applicants, and our health care. That’s people being more informed. Also in recessions people look in more detail at what they think will improve their job prospects.’’

Was there perhaps too much emphasis in the past on the so-called softer subjects?

“History shows that all education is of benefit to people and much of education is transferable,’’ says Lewis. “I’m not doing what I thought I would be doing when I was 16 when I was first trained and very few people are.

“It’s always quoted that we produce too many hairdressers, yet we know that the biggest employer in Middlesbrough is retail and all of our hairdressing students have a huge focus on customer service which is very transferable.

“However, I do think that as a country we did lose our focus on science and maths, through the whole education system and that was partly the government in the 1980s that tried to turn the country into a service economy. Many colleges were encouraged
to drop engineering – we were, but we didn’t thankfully.’’

The climate is changing but Lewis says it will take time to make a difference.

“It does take a while to feed into the employment system. A lot of the skills gaps
on Teesside are at the high end for 30-year-olds to 40-year-olds. It takes a while, but we
have started.

“Many of the industries on Teesside are amazing at training their staff and investing in young people but there are still, unfortunately, too many that don’t. Only 14% of companies here on Teesside take on a young person, compared to about 40% nationally.

“But I’m really hopeful that as the economy is picking up employers will start reinvesting in their staff and in young people, which is what their businesses need.’’